I underestimate the importance of writing down my classroom experiences. As a student of color in a predominantly white institution, I found myself replaying the micro-aggressions faced in the classroom but never writing about them. I also have spent hours on end talking and sharing my experiences as a student of color with other multi-cultural students about the limited representation in the classroom.We have to learn the navigate spaces that weren’t created with people who look like us in mind. While we are learning to not only define what we are experiencing, we are also expected to 1. Be the spokesperson for the whole black community and 2. Not be “too black”. It seems that race or ethnicity only matters in a classroom from a theoretical perspective which white students seem to be well versed in. They use language to describe our lives that our own communities doesn’t know exist. We are subjects to study, to discuss for a few minutes here and there and then to be left alone. It’s a luxury to be able to sit in a classroom and apply a theory to a tragic issue in a foreign country without ever haven been there. It’s a luxury to say race shouldn’t matter without ever having to survive it. It’s a luxury to say “urban neighborhoods” without ever having to visit one. It’s a luxury to claim to be an expert about a life you will never have to experience and to never acknowledge the experiences of the few black students sitting next to, in front of or behind you in class.
You know, what is the most problematic for me is that white students, faculty and staff have the privilege to say things with or without thinking that may offend you and still be able to go home and sleep at night, never having to think about that encounter again. Well, unfortunately, five years from now I will remember the student who said “but you’re not, like, the typical black girl”, or my co-worker who called me “spicy” when I spoke up with an idea, or the numerous times my white professors have said, “you speak so eloquently, you are just so articulate” as if they expected me to not be, I don’t know, smart. It’s frustrating, as a black woman, to have to pick and choose when to speak up for myself for the fear of being seen as the “angry black girl” or as a black student in general, because at the end of the day we aren’t supposed to be here and we should be thankful for our seats. I will remember the white students, who are supposed “allies,” try to explain my intersection to me and then proceed to tell me that an unpleasant encounter I decided to share with them wasn’t what I thought it was because, “maybe you just took it the wrong way”. Ten years from now I will remember the student who said “why do black students get all these scholarships? Like, if you can’t afford college then maybe you just shouldn’t apply”. I will remember the day a fellow Gender & Women’s Studies classmate told me that I needed to take my race out of the discussion about gender. Little did she know, that was the day I ran out of f*cks to give. I am reclaiming the role of the “angry black woman” and I will set it off on anyone who tries it.
I am senior at the University of Rhode Island and I am completely unapologetic about my presence on this campus. I am not sorry for my experience. I am not sorry for the scholarships I have been awarded because of my “racial disadvantage” AND my merit. I am not sorry that I encourage other black students to advocate for themselves. I was tired of being told by both white and black faculty members that I needed to be pleasant. I was tired of being told to turn the other cheek. I was tired of being told that it was OK for me to stand up for myself but as long as I did it the “right way”. If the “right way” is compromising when, where, what, how and to whom I expressed my feelings to then I will risk doing it “wrong”. I realized that even though I didn’t feel like it’s my job to have to educate folks on how to interact with me, that I will have to do it anyway because I could not afford to lose anymore sleep thinking about what I should have said at work or at school or in the grocery store. I realized very quickly that I was going to have to deal with this for the rest of my life.
I know too many students of color who sit in the back of the classroom and refuse to speak up for understandable reasons. They don’t want to feel as if they have to speak for anyone but themselves. They are tired of constantly having to defend their intelligence because of the misconceptions people have of their race or ethnicity. They are afraid of how they will be perceived from there on out. Some may think that speaking up will change absolutely nothing. However, I would say that our goal is not to change someone’s opinion or their minds. Instead, by you asking “what did you mean by that?” it will force the speaker to think about what they just said. Like I said, some folks say things with or without thinking because they have the privilege of never having to revisit that encounter again, unless, their statements are questioned. By questioning their statements they are forced to rethink what they just said and WHY they said it. Hold them accountable for their words. Don’t allow someone’s ignorance to silence you or to belittle your experience. Your feelings are valid, your experience matters and you shouldn’t be punished for letting them know what the deal is.